EA Sports got a whole lot of flack for what happened with Madden NFL 21 earlier this year. The game had its charms, but on the whole, a certain kind of staleness and a bunch of gasp-inducing glitches caused the game to get panned by reviewers and gamers alike. While they are, of course, very different games, EA Sports got the chance to save face a bit a few months later with the release of its other behemoth video game franchise, FIFA 21.
Picking out why FIFA has a much better reputation than Madden is hard to identify. Perhaps it’s because of the inherent nature of the sports themselves, and one is more conducive to gaming than the other. Perhaps it’s because of the existence of a legitimate rival, as Madden has nothing while FIFA has Konami’s delightful PES series. Or perhaps it’s something else altogether, like this being a completely wrong read on the entire thing by someone who just likes FIFA more.
But whatever it is, EA Sports rolled out FIFA 21 last week, and unlike Madden, this is a solid, cohesive game that understands what it is and made improvements exactly where it had to. There’s one gigantic change in the game’s Career Mode, but otherwise, a number of the changes in FIFA were designed to make the game a little better in a bunch of different ways, rather than changing everything up in one fell swoop. The result is a wonderful game, and one that I am going to sink a whole lot of time into … well, at least until FIFA 22 comes out.
Let’s start with gameplay, which follows a pretty familiar path for those who are loyal to the series: Things feel awfully similar to the last game, only with a few tweaks. This has become commonplace among versions of the game under the Frostbite engine, which is very much a blessing and a curse. The familiarity that comes with playing FIFA is something that EA Sports seems to pride itself on, but every now and then, this leads to the game either feeling stale or a change not working, a la the game becoming far too defensive-minded last year to the point of feeling clumsy.
This year’s game finds the balance between “feel familiar” and “make little tweaks” nicely. The defending was the thing that stuck out to me — instead of games becoming hideous slop-fests, which they could easily feel like during FIFA 20, defending is more balanced this year. To add a counterbalance to that, though, you get punished if you dive into a tackle that does not work, so those who like to mash X/square or B/circle are put at an immediate disadvantage.
Passing feels far more controlled and not nearly as loose as it has in games past, which is bad for me as someone who likes to rip through balls like there’s no tomorrow, but is generally good for the game. And for those who are big fans of crosses and feel like they have been unnecessarily tricky, that isn’t quite as tough. EA Sports made it a point to tweak the fundamentals of football in this game — per its side: Passing, Blocking, Responsiveness, Manual Headers — and it was an unmitigated success.
Even something like how players move and interact with one another works. Agile Dribbling is fluid, Positioning Personality and Creative Runs are sharp additions to the game that make it feel more lifelike and responsive based off of how you want to play, and the Natural Collision System (the lynchpin of the improved defending) makes things feel less chaotic when players interact with one another on the pitch.It is important to mention here that I have not run into any sort of glitchy messes, so perhaps I am lucky there, but in terms of the gameplay, this is one of my favorite versions of FIFA in some time.
To get into the bells and whistles, FIFA largely kept its game modes the same, although it changed up Skill Games in a way that I think works perfectly, as it’s now a monster skill trainer. The House Rules are still there doing their thing, the act of playing VOLTA Football isn’t all that much different (although, full disclosure, I did not get to dive in too deeply and therefore have not gotten to use The Groundbreakers, which include everyone from current and former star footballers to Diplo and Anthony Joshua), and Ultimate Team understands not to mess with the formula all that much. The downside is that microtransactions are still a thing, which is bad, and will always be bad, even if I have spent my own money to acquire packs, because you kind of have to if you do not want to be left behind in FUT.
This year’s FIFA decided to go all-in on making tweaks to its Career Mode, which had grown so stale that Philadelphia 76ers star Joel Embiid took to Twitter last year and begged that something would be different this time around. Before diving into how the Manager mode is different in a good way, Player mode is as frustrating as that is better. You go somewhere, you train, you play, and … that’s kind of it. In every game where I have played that mode, for some reason, my manager puts me out of position and in a weird formation. Last year, I played as a winger who spent all of his matches as a midfielder. This year, I am a midfielder who was moved to center back. While a comprehensive, NBA 2K-style single-player story mode would be a nightmare, I feel like FIFA can do a little more here.
Being a manager, however, is more fun. There’s far more planning into getting your team ready for a game than usual — in past games, you’d put individual players through one of five allocated drills and that was it for a week. Now, there is a weekly training/rest schedule, and as the manager, it is your job to balance fitness, sharpness, and morale. It’s a bit tedious, but I generally like the idea.
I love the process by which a player gets a developmental plan, one which lets them change positions — understandably, it’s easier to change to a similar position (i.e. a center back to a defensive midfielder) than if you wanted to make a fullback into a striker — or change how they approach positions. I was also a big fan of the new mechanism through which you can simulate a game but follow along. Now, you are still managing an entire match, but you’re truly serving as manager, following along with dots that float on the field, managing fitness and player ratings, adjusting how your team plays, and if the situation calls for it, hopping in and taking care of business on your own.
That second thing is, quite possibly, my favorite addition to FIFA in years. While it is not quite as immersive as Football Manager, it is hard not to see the inspiration drawn from the legendary soccer sim. If you’re the kind of person who likes to build a team and leave their games to the computer, legitimately letting them feel like they’re turning FIFA into a game where they are the manager, it’s a blast. I do have a gripe with the amount of adjusting you can do to your various players’ instructions and your tactics, which is still a bit stale, but for a first attempt, this is quite good and quite fun.
Overall, FIFA 21 didn’t try to reinvent the wheel in a bunch of ways. Gameplay has the right tweaks, while FUT and VOLTA Football don’t try to do anything they do not need to do. If you buy a game for those things, you don’t really need to pick this one up right away, but if you want to get it for those things, you won’t be disappointed. But for the Career Mode fans, pick it up as soon as you can.